The Last Night Watch
Tonight I'll take my last night watch, between midnight and 2am. Tikopia is
finally in sight and sometime in the early morning we'll pass through the
narrow passage in the outer reef and this 5-month adventure will be over. By
the time you read this I'll probably be on the beach, which is hard to
Living on this boat, camped and basic as it is has become so normal, so
routine it's going to be strange sleeping in a bed or going to the toilet in
the middle of the night without a canopy of stars overhead. Sailing between
picture-postcard images of paradise has been amazing, the consistent,
wonderfully-warm, island welcomes life-changing and a huge privilege. I'm
really going to miss it, just as I'll miss the simple living, wearing only
shorts, walking barefoot and travelling with a bagful of possessions. I'll
miss the freedom and isolation of the sea and I'll miss sitting alone
steering alone across the Pacific at night.
On these boats someone is always at the helm. 24-7, at night and in bad
weather everyone has to take a turn. 2-3 hour slots are the norm. Being
woken in the middle of the night takes a few days to get used to, but then
the rhythm of the boat takes over and you forget there was any other way to
pass the night.
Those hours alone at the helm can be special. We live almost constantly on
about 20m of deck space 5 x 4m of deck space and it can feel like a goldfish
bowl. At night you have it to yourself. It's the only time on the boat you
have space to be alone.
In the good times, when the skies are clear and the wind blows into
perfectly balanced sails, this beautiful boat will glide along a steady
course almost by herself. These are the night watches when you have time
make a drink, get something to eat, write a letter and gaze across the stars
and ocean. Occasionally something magical happens. I've sat transfixed
watching dolphins race between the hulls exciting phosphorescent plankton as
they move to leave silver trails like underwater fireworks. I've seen
jellyfish rise from the depths sending out pulses of light as the go past
and heard a long, melancholy whale song.
On calm nights the only sounds are ripples slapping against the hulls, the
crew's snoring and muttering and a thousand creaks and groans coming from
the boat, sounds that can play tricks on you. For weeks I thought I could
hear Radio 4 coming from somewhere under the deck and a strange muttering
from the aft locker. It's a weird, eerie feeling, like having voices in your
head, but without the lithium, that are only banished when the wind picked
On clear nights the whole Milky Way spreads itself across the sky so
clearly. It's awe-inspiring, mind boggling and frightening to contemplate.
When there's a moon the stars may pale, but you can see for miles and the
ocean in the sea twinkles in the reflected starlight as if sparks are
passing across the waves. On these nights the boat feels like an island,
safe and unsinkable. There's a special sense of isolation, of cohesion with
the sea and you steer by the stars on autopilot whilst your mind wanders
through a thousand thoughts, dreams and schemes and ponderings.
Often I think of the adventures and places to come, the journey past,
present and future. Then I also think of friends and family, love and sex,
of work and half-baked dreams for books, films and business empires. More
and more I think of Clare who is left in England and plot schemes for our
future, plans for great adventures and long trips where budgets and time don't
matter. In my mind I've sketched out the beautiful house I want to build
with a roof terrace where I'll throw wild parties. I've been working on my
perfect boat, then found myself chuckling about larks with friends that
happened over a decade ago or remembered random stories recounted to me over
cups of tea or pints down The Loaf. Time doesn't drag, it flies by.
These are the good times. There are other, very different nights, and there
have been many, when it all goes south. There's no light, the sea rough and
it's nothing but trouble. Suddenly the cockpit is cramped and uncomfortable
and you steer into the blackness with only a compass to guide you. The waves
you hear coming, but never see them before they hit you. Sometimes you can
hear the roar of coming rain and ready yourself for it. At other times there
is just enough light to see the dark, black clouds gathering around you
before a fierce, blustery squall hits and you have to drag people from their
cabins to change sails in a hurry.
A string of bad nights and you begin to dread the night. Clouds at sunset
sends shivers down your spine and paranoia spreads at the slightest change
of wind speed. Rum doesn't help, whisky a little. It's at times like these
that you wish the time away and pray that the weather holds off just long
enough for some other poor soul to take their place at the helm.
My watch begins in an hour.